Garden design with children in mind

The first rule of garden design for children is to make it safe. You don’t want to be constantly worrying about where the children are, what they are picking up or which plants are being tasted for edibility. Make sure you have a look through our ‘Health and safety bit’ to child-proof your garden.

The second rule of garden design for children is to make it stimulating. If your garden is big enough, give them their own space in it and make it somewhere they can play and learn how to garden independently, albeit with your careful guidance. If you don’t have the space to divide up the garden between adult and children needs, incorporate plants into your beds, borders or containers which will interest and excite children – there are plenty about so it’s easy to tie them in with the overall look and feel you’d like for your garden. If they can’t have their own plot, create a raised bed or buy a couple of large tubs, and give the children ownership of them. With a little encouragement you might find that they relish the opportunity to tend their own ‘garden’, keeping it well watered and weed free.

An area of lawn is also a useful thing for a child-friendly garden; it can instantly become a teddy-bear picnic site, a football pitch or a race track. Tough species of grass are available in lawn mixes which will withstand the heavy use of children at play. Good lawn maintenance, particularly aerating it, will keep it in a reasonable state year round despite the pounding it receives.

Play equipment doesn’t have to mean plastic

Brightly coloured play equipment is readily available and, generally speaking, will withstand years of use. Shrubs and trees, or strategically placed trellises covered with climbers can be used to screen play areas and allow you a primary-coloured-plastic-free area.

Alternatively you could create the play equipment yourself, from natural materials which will blend in with the overall design of your garden. If you’re lucky enough to have a mature, healthy, strong tree, then it’s easy to fashion a robust swing from a plank of wood (ensure it is well sanded to prevent splinters) and rope. Logs can be cut into stepping stones, willow withies can be planted in two lines and tied at the top to create a tunnel and small, robust shrubs (such as box plants, Buxus sempervirens) used to create hurdles. Old tyres can be put to great use, for example as a ‘sit in’ swing or laid on the floor to clamber across. While the construction of the equipment is an adult task, involving the children in the design stage can be great fun and make them enjoy their new adventure playground even more.

For those with big gardens

If you have the space for larger features, why not consider the following:

  • Creating a large raised mound in your garden can open up numerous possibilities for creative play by your children. You’ll need ‘hired help’ to create the mound as it’ll involve a foundation of hardcore which is firmly compacted, followed by layers of soil which are also compacted to form the mound. The mound can have sloped sides, have steps cut into the slope, or a spiral pathway leading up the sides. When deciding on the size, it’s best to start with the space you want at the top (do you want a small ‘peak’ or space for a den?) then use this as a guide to the diameter of the base. The sides should slope gently to prevent accidents. Once the mound has been formed the children can be involved in planting it. You could use grass and meadow flowers to cover the slopes. The top could have a den on top, or a circle of willow, grasses (make sure they aren’t sharp edged) or even young trees to create an enclosure.
  • Mazes and labyrinths have been features of gardens for centuries. You may not have room to plant a hedge maze (or sow a sweetcorn maze) but there’s no reason a lawn cannot be turned into your very own labyrinth. Work with the children to agree on a design, perhaps using one from a child’s puzzle book. Make it relatively simple, particularly if you have a small lawn. Let your lawn grow to about 10cm tall then mark out the path of your maze with sand, or a sports pitch marker spray, allowing the path width to be at least the same as the width of your lawn mower. You can make this easier by dividing your maze drawing into a grid, then replicating this grid on your lawn to a larger scale. Mow over your markings and you’ll have your maze!
  • A short section of concrete piping can create a tunnel entrance to the children’s play area. Piliing up earth either side will keep it safely in place and provide more privacy for their part of the garden, you can then turf over the earth.


What child doesn’t want a den? A secret hideaway with no adults (or boys/girls) allowed?! Children will often find a way of making their own dens, but working with them to create a more permanent structure can be great fun, doesn’t have to cost the earth and can be tied into the overall design of your garden. Here are some ideas for making dens:

  • A living den – All you’ll need for this is a bunch of living willow withies. Mark a circle which will be the area of the den and clear any turf from the perimeter of the circle. Dig hoes (with a trowel or a corer) 30cm deep and between 15 and 30cm apart around the perimeter (how far apart depends on how closely woven you want the walls to be) and fill each hole with compost and water. Leave a gap at the entrance and make 3 or 4 holes either side of the entrance. Plant the withies into the holds, firming them in. Tie them together at the top (cutting to size) and twist together the extra ones either side of the entrance to form an archway. Weave withies horizontally around the den about every 50cm up to give it a bit more strength. Water the willow well until it is established.
  • Fence pole fortress – Rounded fence poles (the type you often see forming barbed wire fencing) can be used as an easy way to create a den. Mark out the perimeter of your den and where the entrance will be. Dig a trench around the perimeter (excluding the entrance) about 30cm deep. Place the poles into the trench so you can see how many you need. To create a castellated wall remove every other two or three posts and reduce their size, keeping full height posts either side of the entrance. Apply wood stain to the posts. Put the posts back into position, this time hammering their points slightly into the ground to keep them in place. Then use a quick setting concrete mix (specialist mixes for garden fence posts are available) to fix the posts in place. For extra stability, staple nylon webbing material horizontally along the posts on the inside of the den.